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Is Leon a good guy? Mike Parker analyses the character of the eponymous anti-hero through the moral philosophy of Schopenhauer.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is notorious for his endemic pessimism and general misanthropy. While this assessment is hard to counter, we should not take this to be a negative trait: far from it. My aim in this review is to look at one aspect of his work, his understanding of a good moral character, and to use this as a practical tool for analysing the fictional character of ‘Leon’.

In Leon, The Professional (1994 Luc Besson) the eponymous central figure is a ruthless assassin; a monastic individual whose life outside of his role as hit man for the local mafia is desolate. The only adult relationship Leon has is with the Italian mobster Tony, who Leon mistakenly regards as a protective paternal figure. This insincere relationship is beneficial for Tony, who preys on Leon’s naivety, coldly fostering Leon’s talent for clinical assassination. In this absence of human warmth and companionship, Leon pathetically turns his atrophied affection towards a pot plant (“my best friend” as he calls it); an unlikely companion for an archetypal hired killer.

In the early scenes of the film there is little about Leon that we can see as morally good. The evidence we are given – his brutality and ruthless efficiency at killing, together with his lack of normal human interaction – would suggest that our feeling for the character should be negative. But this is not the case. Almost from the outset our perception of Leon is that he is innately good, regardless of his ‘professional’ ability as an assassin. To explain this we need to know a little about Schopenhauer’s thoughts on morality.

Schopenhauer categorically denied the possibility of free will. Instead, he presented us with the idea that all our actions emanate from a series of powerful motivations, and that these motivations arise prior to our intellectual understanding of them: “In the real world, what sort of things motivate actions?” he asks. “Do any actions or motivations actually occur which even after careful analysis we still want to describe as moral in any approving sense?” (On the Basis of Morality, p168.)

For Schopenhauer, we are practically and logically incapable of a consciously independent act of free will. The pursuit of our strongest unconscious motivations always precedes reasoning choice. For example, if I have a lifelong loathing of coffee, it is unlikely I would choose this beverage in a restaurant. Further to this, if I consciously chose to ignore my loathing of coffee and then forced myself to drink it, it would probably be seen as an act of lunacy rather than of free will: “It is never suggested by Schopenhauer that people behave morally because they possess a correct theoretical understanding of what is involved. On the contrary, because we cannot decide what we are going to will, and because it is the will that governs our behaviour, conceptual knowledge can no more generate valid moral activity than it can generate valid artistic activity.” (Bryan Magee, Schopenhauer p 199.)

The burning desire to follow one’s strongest motivation is, in its rawest sense, pure animal instinct. However, Schopenhauer recognised that as human beings our motivations are significantly more complex than this. As a necessary feature of our success as social beings, we have produced a series of external checks and balances simply to elevate the interests of the group or species above those of the individual.

For Schopenhauer our motivations are given to us at birth, as instincts. They distinguish us as individuals to the same extent as physical characteristics do. Crucially though, the power of social conditioning can very effectively disguise our natural inclinations, so that people can act according to their cultural training in ways contrary to what they naturally feel. Correct ethical interpretation for Schopenhauer should always recognise those aspects of character that are innately good or innately bad. This is, of course, never easy to do.

The suicide bomber who regards his actions as originating from a natural moral base is, for Schopenhauer. merely extending his own individual egoism through the promise of a better life in paradise. Similarly, the celebrity who brazenly attaches her public identity to charitable causes surreptitiously promotes her own self-interests. But if it is possible that some explicitly good actions can conceal an implicitly bad character, it follows that some explicitly bad actions can disguise an innately good character. Enter Leon.

Raised in the notorious vengeance culture of Sicily, Leon committed his first assassination at the age of 16, murdering the father of his first love. Arriving in America, he was befriended by local Italian mobster Tony who recognised Leon’s natural ability to ‘clean’. Besson then gives us an emotionally detached character; reclusive, coming into his own only when his hitman skills are put into practice, or as he puts it, “when I go to work. I hate being late for work.”

We are, however, unsure if the character is in fact a ruthless psychopathic killer by inclination (we know he has the skills to ‘do the job’) or if – and this is the crucial connection to Schopenhauer – his circumstances have instead led him down a path whereby no credible alternative lifestyle could have occurred. Leon had no choice about being born in a ferocious revenge culture; this was imposed on him. He had no choice other than to use his skills to enable him to survive. He had no choice other than to escape to the only subculture with which he was familiar – mob culture.

Leon is portrayed by Besson as a split person. He is a comfortable assassin – a job he has learned, and is the best at. But in contrast to this calling, he is also a pathetic child-man who gapes in awe at movies portraying ‘the joy of life’, in particular, Gene Kelly’s Singing In The Rain. At all other times Leon is nothing, a void of a person, hermetic, with no motivation other than to drink milk and care for his beloved plant.

So who is the ‘real’ Leon? We get to know his implicit character through his enforced relationship with Mathilda, his precocious 12-year-old neighbour. Mathilda is the catalyst which allows Leon’s natural humanity to come to the fore. One particular scene is decisive in our assessment of his good moral nature.

Following the brutal assassination of her dysfunctional family at the hands of crazed, corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield, Mathilda flees into a narrow corridor. To go back would lead to the police murderers. The way forward leads to Leon’s door. In complete turmoil, she presses Leon’s bell. His honed skills enable him to assess the situation in an instant. He knows not only that the girl will be killed if he fails to open the door, but also that his interaction could prove lethal too. His involvement would oppose all of his training as a reclusive assassin.

Schopenhauer would have presented us with a simple question at this point. Given that we know Leon to be a brutal killer – and therefore bad – would we expect him to open the door? Our answer to this has to be no. If, however, his ability to kill was just acquired as an accident of life, effectively disguising Leon’s innate character, what might we expect him to do? It would be a straightforward moral action: he helps another person in extreme distress, with the possibility he may be killed – or he does not. For Schopenhauer this situation would be a pure test of the innate goodness of an individual: the possibility of the foregoing of self-interest for the sake of compassion.

Leon’s door opens to a flood of light which physically overwhelms Mathilda – a scene of accomplished cinematic skill by Besson. We are now left in no doubt as to the inherent moral character of Leon. He is a good guy.

The rest of the film is an unfolding of Leon’s humanity. Against all his reasoned judgement (he tries on several occasions to detach himself from Mathilda), he nevertheless takes the child under his wing, and teaches her the skills of the assassin.

Once again here our judgement is tested. Leon is clinically training a child to kill; an outwardly reprehensible act. But by now we have a moral base which validates our affinity for both characters. The coldly clinical effectiveness of their profession is offset by the affection they share for each other. And in rejecting Mathilda’s naive yet overt sexual advances, we again see a man overcoming a primeval motivation, the result of which is behaviour of pure moral worth.

This is Schopenhauer’s moral philosophy in action. A good man with no outward reason to be good: an individual whose life experience has been overwhelmingly negative (in an early scene Mathilda asks Leon, “Is life always this bad?” and he answers “Always.”) Even given all of this he cannot become an innately bad person. For Schopenhauer, no matter how much we educate ourselves to be good or bad, it is all ultimately to no avail: “Even the highest intellectual eminence can co-exist with the greatest moral depravity.” (The World as Will and Representation 2 p.228.)

Leon’s death, a sacrifice offered to the two life forces he perceives with pureness of heart (Mathilda and the symbolic plant), is much more than a resolution of a tragic theme. It is a reflection of a natural morality which can transcend all external influence. Our sense of loss is overcome by the realisation that even in our morally-bankrupt human condition, individuals such as Leon will always shine through, with “A special goodness of heart, which, as I have said, exists very rarely indeed.” (WWR 2 p.228.) An ultimately optimistic position to hold.

© Mike Parker 2007

Mike Parker is studying for a PhD at the University of Central Lancashire.

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